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031: Parenting beyond pink and blue
26th March 2017 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 00:51:17

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Today I join forces with Malaika Dower of the How to Get Away with Parenting podcast to interview Dr. Christia Brown, who is a Professor of Developmental and Social Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where she studies the development of gender identity and children’s experience of gender discrimination.

Dr. Brown’s book, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue (Affiliate link), helps parents to really understand the scientific research around gender differences in children, which is a harder task than with some other topics because there’s just a lot of bad research out there on this one.  I ask about theories of gender development while Malaika keeps us grounded with questions about how this stuff works in the real world, and we both resolve to shift our behavior toward our daughters just a little bit.

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Brown, C.S. (2014). Parenting beyond pink and blue. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press. (Affiliate link)

Taylor, M.G., Rhodes, M., & Gelman, S.A. (2009). Boys will be boys and cows will be cows: Children’s essentialist reasoning about gender categories and animal species. Child Development 80(2), 461-481. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01272.x

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Jen: 00:30 Hello and welcome to Your Parenting Mojo. We have a pretty cool show lined up for you today. So those of you who are subscribed to my podcasts by my website at might've seen a notification go out just before the holiday, letting you know that had been interviewed by Malaika Dower, who is the host of the podcast, How to Get Away with Parenting. And as a side note, I'll say that Malaika is interested in a lot of the same issues as I am. So you should go and check out her show and if you're the parent of a child of color then you should pause this show and go and check out her show at right now because there are very few podcasts for this audience and hers is a really good one. So right after we recorded our episode, Malaika texted me and said, did you ever think about doing an episode on gender-neutral parenting? Does it even make a difference if I put barrettes in my daughter's hair and put her in pink dresses or if she only wears pants and I always say "yes, our neighbor is writing down his riding down the street" on her bike rather than "he or she is riding her bike." So like I always do, I looked around to see who's doing really good work on the subject by which I mean work that is actually based on the outcomes of real scientific research and not a study saying that girl babies hear about one decibel better than boy babies for very high pitch noises and that this is enough justification for gender segregated classrooms where we never let the noise get too loud in the girls classroom and I wish that I was kidding you about that, but I'm really not. So when I read the book, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue and I found that it critically examines the relevant scientific literature on this subject, much like we do here on the show, I knew that I had to ask the author to talk with us. Dr. Christia Brown is professor of development and social psychology at the University of Kentucky where she studies the development of gender identity and children's experience of gender discrimination among other topics. Dr. Brown received her Ph.D from the University of Texas at Austin where her research focused on how and why children form gender and race stereotypes and how they understand gender discrimination. As I mentioned, Dr Brown's book is called Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes. Welcome Dr Brown, and also welcome to Malaika Dower, who's going to be our co-interviewer today.
Malaika: 02:36 Hi!
Dr. Brown: 02:36 Thank you.
Jen: 02:37 All right, so let's start with the big question.
Jen: 02:41 Is there a genetic difference between the brains of very young boys and girls? Can you talk us through that a little bit please?
Dr. Brown: 02:47 I can. I mean there are, I mean obviously there are genetic differences between boys and girls, is that when you start to really look at brain differences, there aren't very many and there definitely aren't many when you look at young children. So yes, there are some differences between adults. The problem is they've had an entire lifetime of different experiences and there's lots of evidence that all those experiences shape the brain in very concrete structural ways. So when you're talking about what are these of biological differences early in life, there are very, very few and there's far more differences between individual boys and individual girls then between boys and girls as a group.
Jen: 03:31 Wow. Uh, okay. So you said two really big things there. Firstly, that the experiences that we have in our lives physically shape our brains, so that adults have very different brains than they did as children. Is that right?
Dr. Brown: 03:45 That's exactly right.
Jen: 03:46 Okay. And then secondly that there are some differences between boys and girls, but the overall difference between boys and girls is far less than the difference between two individual boys or an individual boy and an individual girl, is that right?
Dr. Brown: 04:05 Right. So I mean the idea that knowing someone's gender doesn't help you very much predict even what their brain looks like structurally. So it definitely doesn't help you predict what kind of behaviors or interests or activities they're going to like doing. Neuroscientists even say their brains don't look different. I mean they talk about it as more of like a brain mosaic and that there's parts of kind of stereotypical boy parts and parts of girl parts all within every individual's brain. It's not this pink and blue dichotomy that we often like to think it is.
Jen: 04:38 Hmm. Okay. So when we start to think about some of the topics where we imagine this being important; I'm thinking that start with temperament, temperament and emotion...what does that mean for differences if there are any.
Dr. Brown: 04:55 There aren't any when it comes to emotion. And I'll say Janet Hyde does really great research, so she's a developmental psychologist, and she has done a lot of meta-analyses on these. So when I say that there aren't differences, it's not based on like one or two studies, not finding differences. She's taking kind of every study that's ever been done looking for a gender difference and puts them all into one pot and then kind of analyze as across...She has one study, looked across a million something kids. So when I say there's no difference, it's really based on hundreds of studies and they found that there aren't differences in emotion, there aren't differences in temperament in between boys and girls. The one difference you see that's, it's not big, but it is, I think what I would say, you know, an actual difference is boys have a little bit of a higher activity level like infant boys and they're a little bit more impulsive, so a little bit more likely to kind of reach out and grab something when they're infants compared to girls. Again, it's a small difference and it's just a mean level difference. So it doesn't really predict my individual daughter who's going to reach out and grab something in the grocery store so doesn't really help me as a parent. But as new looking at lots of groups, you see a little bit of a difference there but not when it comes to like emotional expression or who feel sad or who feels happy and how upset you get that, there's not a difference at all.
Jen: 06:22 And so when we think about math, I've been doing a lot of reading on this right now, in terms of girls' ability to do math and that their ability actually seems fairly congruent with a boy's ability to do math, but the boy's confidence in his ability to do math is much higher. Why is that?
Dr. Brown: 06:42 Well, I mean kids really early. No, the stereotype that boys are good at math. I mean there've been studies that show it was like five and six know that stereotype. So by the time they're starting school, when they're actually doing math, they know that boys are supposed to be good at this and girls are less good at it. So I think when you think that you're going to be good, that does a lot to increase your own competence and reduce your anxiety about the subject. Whereas girls kind of go in thinking, yeah, might be doing well in class, but I'm not really good at math.
Malaika: 07:14 Just generally sort of the intervention of that. So if we're parents that are trying to intervene in that, where should we step in? And does reinforcement help, so I have a daughter and I want to make sure that she feels like she is good at math or that that's not even a question of being good or bad, just here's math, I will do it, kind of thing. Where if we know already that by five or six they, they have that feeling for me, trying to either counteract that sentiment in girls. Where would I start on? How would I start to, to counteract that. Would I start when she's now she's not yet two by saying isn't math fun! And a kind of overflowing it or do I just kind of like figure out a way to show her women who are doing great at math and math is just the thing that we all have. How would you go about an intervention?
Dr. Brown: 08:11 Yeah, I mean I think all of the above. I mean, honestly, I mean we get this really cool study in that it was really cool because I wasn't the one who designed it, but I kind of came on later and it looked at how much parents of toddlers talk to their kids using just like the kind of numbers you used when you have toddlers. Like, oh look, you have four apple slices left. Oh there's three blue cars in a row. Look, there's five trees, that kind of thing. Let's count the stairs as we walk up them. Then that just kind of everyday casual number use. And what we found was that parents of toddlers, so parents of boys used numbers three times more than parents of daughters. And so in the world of psychology, a huge difference. I mean three times the amount is a lot and it's that casual use of early math.
Dr. Brown: 09:03 And so part of what I think for parents of toddlers is to be aware of how much you use math in just daily life. I think that's one of the reasons boys are more competent in math, is it's just part of their daily life all the time. So whatever you're doing, you're turning it into and just kind of casual math problem and the way that you just talked to your toddlers. I think that's part of it. I think, by the time they were about four and five, that's when I chose to really start talking about stereotypes about when they go to school and they start doing math in preschool or kindergarten and saying, you know what, I've heard that some people think boys are really good at math and girls are not good, but that is so wrong. So really explicitly addressing it that way when there's a boy in the second grade, that makes a comment because he's also absorbed the kind of stereotype that girls have a lens for understanding where that comment is coming from.
Dr. Brown: 10:02 So part of it's just like addressing it head on, but it is, it's also showing role models. It's talking about math. The other thing we know parents do is they assume that even when girls do well at math, it's because the girls worked really hard, whereas the boys are just naturally good. Parents try to offer help to the girls in math more than they offer it to boys. So partly I think for parents it's also just kind of being aware of your own kind of baggage you have about your own math ability and making sure that that's not filtering out into some presumed difference that you're how you're treating kids.
Jen: 10:39 I was actually just reading a study on that last night. There's a woman named Sian Blaylock out of...I think the University of Chicago who's done some research on this and found that if the mother particularly has a lot of emotional baggage around math, it can actually really impact the way the daughter particularly learns about math. So Malaika, were you confident with math when you were in school and do you feel confident with it now?
Malaika: 11:05 I wasn't, but my mom was. My mom is very good at math. She's a scientist, she's a doctor. She's so, she instilled in me a sort of love of figuring out and solving problems, but I still hold, I do hold that baggage of like, well, I'm not as good as my mom was. So, but I, I've heard studies like this before, so I've recently been sort of like, I'm going to get okay with it being good at math or I'm in an almost basically I've decided I'm going to lie to my daughter and say I love that. That's great because I don't want to... Even though my mom genuinely did feel that I still had, I think maybe the, the impact of others around me saying that I probably wasn't good at math maybe it might have affected me not being good at math or not liking that or math or being afraid of, of, you know, pursuing it further. I ended up doing advanced math and stuff in school, but that was more of a sort of track that I was on, but it wasn't something... I had a fear of it. And so yeah, my, my plan is just to lie to my daughter.
Jen: 12:06 It makes sure she doesn't catch you. I have an episode coming on lying to children and if they catch you it's bad news.
Malaika: 12:15 Well then my plan is to get good with math.
New Speaker: 12:16 Okay. Or get or get good at lying. Yeah. Okay. So that's really helpful. In terms of the math and the verbal abilities, I think there's a really definite stereotype that girls are better at reading and particularly better at talking as well. Is that it's kind of an inherent difference or how did, how it goes even get that idea in the first place.
Dr. Brown: 12:38 I'm not sure. It's actually has been in popular culture for a long time, but there have also been meta-analyses on that that show there are really no differences in, for example, who's more talkative boys or girls. We really talk the exact same amount. Where are the difference does seem to be is that girls develop language and kind of first words a little bit earlier than boys do. So you know we're talking months, not a year, but girls say their first word a couple of months on average before boys do, but that's just really the starting point. Boys catch up so there aren't reliable differences between verbal abilities between boys and girls. It's really just that kind of first words is where you see it.
Jen: 13:29 I wonder if that leads parents to, you know, when the girl is the first one to speak and oh, she's a girl, she's really chatty, and then it kind of just snowballs from there and becomes a self reinforcing stereotype. Is that possible?
Dr. Brown: 13:41 It's completely possible. I think that's where most mean, that's really where most of these differences eventually come from is that parents kind of presume that there's this difference and there's this little morsel of a difference, but parents feeds into kind of what they think boys and girls are like. And so very accidentally they kind of play out these stereotypes. So we see that parents talked to infant girls more than they talk to boys. They just use more language with them so they just get more verbal input than sons do. And so, you know, of course they're going to have kind of differences then in terms of some types of language tasks later on.
Jen: 14:22 Hm. Wow. That's, that's incredible. I mean, I only have one child and that's the way I'm planning on having it stay, so I can't make a case study on this, but the fact that, that I might have unconsciously treated my daughter differently than I would have treated a son is sort of mind boggling to me. Malaika, what do you think about it?
Malaika: 14:43 Yeah, I mean, I definitely have. My daughter is talkative. She's not yet two when she's speaking in full sentences. And I definitely been like, oh, well I'm talkative and my mom's talkative and so it's just the women in our family... I've just, that example alone kind of stuck with me. But I have found that there's times when I. where I wonder, um, I think I told you Jen about just the time that she knew my daughters, so almost bald. She doesn't have much hair so I don't have to do her hair. But one time I put a barrette in her hair, and I generally dress what would be, what are, what are boys clothes because I buy them from the boys section, but I consider them just like plain clothes. I don't particularly dress her in any colorful dresses unless we're maybe going to church or something, but for the most part she's always wearing boys clothes and I put a barette in her hair once and I immediately felt internally this sense of femininity, like coming from her a 20 month old child and I was like, oh my gosh, she looks like a girl now and I now I see the difference and I didn't realize that I had, I think I have been treating her like a boy because I dress her like a boy. And I wondered, you know, kind of like, oh, I, I think you mentioned before a lot of this stuff is the baggage the parent has. And I didn't even realize I had all of this baggage about femininity and masculinity in a toddler, you know, so I don't know how to undo it, I guess.
Dr. Brown: 16:09 Yeah. I mean there's a great kind of classic study where they brought a baby into a lab and they dress. This is the exact same baby. They dress in the baby and pink clothes and called her Beth and then they had these participants come in and just interact with the baby and then they coded what it looks like. Then the other time they would dress it in blue and I think they named the Baby Adam. Again, the exact same baby. All that was different was what clothes they put them in and yeah, the adults that were interacting with the baby were talking about how cute and pretty and delicate at what this child was dressed in pink, but when the exact same child was dressed in blue, they made comments about how strong and tough and we're more kind of physical with the baby.
Jen: 16:49 Wow.
Dr. Brown: 16:50 And it's really subtle. I don't think any parent goes into it thinking, oh, I'm going to treat my daughters differently than my sons. I think it's just we're also products of the culture. I mean I wrote a book on it. I'm still a product of the culture. I have to fight it, like aware of it myself because we also lived here and we grew up hearing in the same kind of messages and internalizing it and we have our own implicit biases even though we don't really believe them, they're just embedded in that part of our brain that, you know, internalized I'm not very good at math. I mean I have that and my husband jokes because I have my minor, my Ph.D Minors and Statistics, but I would say I'm not very good at math and so you could,...